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Scholar Rocks
Yanjiang Rock with Hongmu Base
Exhibited and illustrated: Field of Stones, New York: China 2000 Fine Art, 2001, and published in the exhibition catalogue, plate 11.

The Chinese interest in collecting rocks for religious or aesthetic purposes has been traced back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) when Chinese connoisseurs began to use large stones to decorate their gardens and courtyards. Evolving from appreciation of the larger garden rocks, Chinese literati carried smaller size rocks indoors where they could be admired and meditated over in their sparse studios. A scholar's rock is the most common English name given to the small, individual stones that have been appreciated by educated and artistic Chinese at least since the Song dynasty (960-1270).

Small rocks symbolize mountains that expand into landscapes. The symbolism is not mere representation, since Chinese philosophy provides for a direct interconnected relationship between the symbol and the thing symbolized. The miniature rock is a microcosmic model of the mountain, which is a microcosm of the universe in the way that the earth (yin) is a microcosm for the macrocosm of heaven (yang).

In earlier times, when scholar rocks were mainly placed outdoors, and admired for their natural beauty, they would either have been partially buried (to keep them upright) or placed in a stone or marble planter. The custom of displaying rocks in basins seems to have continued as the norm well into the Ming dynasty. In 1567, Ming emperor Longqing restarted trade with other empires in Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia; thus many precious materials, like huanghuali and zitan woods could be imported. The trend of using wood bases for scholar rocks gradually replaced the Jin, Tang, Song, and Yuan style of using stone bases.